Mirandizing A Terrorist: What’s The Problem?

“As soon as I can figure out how to ignite my ‘package’ I’m blowing up this airplane and everyone on it. Merry Christmas, America.” That was Umar Abdulmutallab’s desire on Christmas Day, 2009. Luckily, all this terrorist managed to accomplish was burning his tightie-whities and singeing the family jewels. Passengers on the Detroit-bound plane were able to subdue and restrain the dangerous, smoldering idiot. Great job, guys.

Abdulmutallab was taken into custody immediately after the plane touched down. I’m sure the aircraft had barely stopped rolling before the feds swarmed the thing and dragged this piece of garbage off. Good for them. I hope they pulled him out by his feet, allowing his head to thump on each step as they went down.

Everyone was safe. The plane was unharmed. The terrorist was in custody. An attempt at terrorism over American soil had failed. Luckily.

But here’s where the sandpaper began to rub cross-grain. Nope, things were not going smoothly, according to some politicians. What happened?

Well, it seems that (according to AP):

– FBI agents questioned Abdulmutallab on December 25, shortly after the bombing attempt. They did so without advising the thug of his rights. This was a decision they made at the time. Then, ten hours later a new team of agents arrive and DO read the guy his rights before questioning. Oh no! The first agents blew it! Now they can’t use “anything he said against him.” That’s what most people think. But are those folks correct in their assumptions? If you believe TV, then yes. But…

Did you know there’s a special exception to the Miranda rules? Yep. There sure is. A 1984 rape case involving defendant Benjamin Quarles set that standard. Quarles argued that police approached him (actually, they chased the scrote inside a supermarket where they recovered the pistol he’d used to make his female rape victim comply with his demands) and questioned him about his weapon before advising him of Miranda. Well, according to the Supreme Court decision in this case (I’ve only posted brief portions of the decision):

U.S. Supreme Court
NEW YORK v. QUARLES, 467 U.S. 649 (1984)
467 U.S. 649


No. 82-1213.

Argued January 18, 1984
Decided June 12, 1984

JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent Benjamin Quarles was charged in the New York trial court with criminal possession of a weapon. The trial court suppressed the gun in question, and a statement made by respondent, because the statement was obtained by police before they read respondent his “Miranda rights.” That ruling was affirmed on appeal through the New York Court of Appeals. We granted certiorari, 461 U.S. 942 (1983), and we now reverse. 1 We conclude that under the circumstances involved in this case, overriding considerations of public safety justify the officer’s failure to provide Miranda warnings before he asked questions devoted to locating the abandoned weapon.,,

…We hold that on these facts there is a “public safety” exception to the requirement that Miranda warnings be given before a suspect’s answers may be admitted into evidence, [467 U.S. 649, 656] and that the availability of that exception does not depend upon the motivation of the individual officers involved. In a kaleidoscopic situation such as the one confronting these officers, where spontaneity rather than adherence to a police manual is necessarily the order of the day, the application of the exception which we recognize today should not be made to depend on post hoc findings at a suppression hearing concerning the subjective motivation of the arresting officer. 6 Undoubtedly most police officers, if placed in Officer Kraft’s position, would act out of a host of different, instinctive, and largely unverifiable motives – their own safety, the safety of others, and perhaps as well the desire to obtain incriminating evidence from the suspect.

The officers in the Quarle case were absolutely correct when they put their safety first (as well as the well-being of everyone in the store) before worrying about advising a rapist of his right to stop flapping his gums or they’d use his words to put his sorry butt in prison for life.


So what’s the big deal. Why all the political doo doo smearing over this attempted airplane bombing case? The FBI agents acted properly. According to The Supremes, EVERYTHING the terrorist said can legally be used against him. Besides, the feds don’t need a single spoken word from the bad guy to convict him. They have dozens of eyewitnesses, the smoking gun (in this case, smoking undies), a history of terrorist activity in the guy’s past… So why would they need him to say, “Uh huh, I done it.” The answer is, they don’t.

What the politicians do want is information regarding his connections in the terrorist camps. So, as usual, our elected leaders have decided to use this incident as a political weapon. Maybe they’re right, maybe not. But I do know this, based on what we’ve been provided, the FBI agents acted properly. So leave them alone and let them do their jobs. It’s over, done, and we have to live with their decisions. Move on, let them build their case against the guy, and then put him away for life. Let him think about the burning bush for the rest of his days on earth.

I’m really tired of all the political squabbling over every single minute issue (I know this one’s not minute, but…). So I have an idea for the next election. Forget Obama, McCain, Clinton, Gore, Cheney, Bush, Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, Romney…forget all of those folks. Here’s my choice:

I’m just saying…

14 replies
  1. Terry
    Terry says:

    Lee, thanks for taking on this topic as it’s one I feel is very relevant to law enforcement and, in the larger context, national security. Thankfully, I don’t think the issue has been an attack on the agents themselves and I agree with your analysis that an effective argument can be made for the public safety exception to Miranda in this matter (and others that will likely emerge in the future). The issue has been on the decision by the Attorney General (according to what I’ve gotten from the press) to mirandize him after 50 minutes (again, according to what I’ve gotten from the press) and therefore place him in the civilian CJ system versus treating him as an unlawful enemy combatant and tracking him through the US intelligence and military tribunal system.

    Further complicating this issue is the seeming lack of a coherent policy here in the US on how we will treat suspects in terrorism cases. If we do have any policy, we’ve done a bad job of relating it to the US public at large to bolster feelings of security. We need the best minds in our government looking at this and sooner rather than later. Right now it comes down to how you, and more important the American people, see extremist activity carried out in the US (or against US assets and citizens abroad) – as individual crimes linked to an extremist ideology OR as linked acts in an insurgency at the global level by Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Sadly, here in the US we’ve let this become a point of argument between political parties and talking heads instead of holding public debates and hearings and developing solid policy and legal tests to drive how we’ll handle these cases as they present themselves.

    Regardless of the viewpoint you take (counterterrorism or counterinsurgency), history has shown us law enforcement, the judicial system, and the military are critical elements in addressing either form of threat. What we need is solid policy on how all three can be employed with synergy to face the security issues facing the nation while assuring the American public their government has the ability to protect them and our way of life. Thanks again Lee – great topic.

  2. Heather
    Heather says:

    This has been chewing at me for a while – the Miranda warning is so well known, when it is recited it seems almost hollow. I can’t tell you how many of my criminal clients lead off with “and they didn’t Mirandize me, so my arrest is invalid.” (We then have a little discussion about Miranda and how it applies to incriminating statements, not the arrest, but I digress . . . ). My point is that the Miranda warnings are well known because they have been come ubiquitous due to their use in books, movies and television.

    I wonder if there might be a successful argument to be made in court at some point that Miranda has become unnecessary because everyone is already aware of the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney, etc. Just a thought . . .

  3. Leslie Budewitz
    Leslie Budewitz says:

    “Oh, congratulations on the new book. Well deserved!”

    Thanks, Lee! Obviously criminal law topics are a big part of the book, but it also covers some aspects of civil law that fiction writers ask about. Today I’m working on the chapter on wills, probate and adoption!


  4. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Leslie, I hope I’m not giving the impression that I believe criminals in the U.S. should not have rights, because that’s definitely not the case. Not at all. I believe all people should have fair and just treatment.

    However, I also believe that when terrorists harm, or attempt to harm our people, our country, and our property, then that’s an exception to the rule. These are not your everyday bank robbers, shoplifters, robbers, or even murderers. Their crimes are acts/crimes against the United States, not just its citizens and their property. These people want to destroy America, the entire country. And I’m not speaking just about land and people. They want to annihilate everything this country stands for, including those rights people are saying should be provided to them. They simply don’t believe in those rights, so why allow these lowlifes the benefit of something they want to destroy? These acts of terrorism should be matters for the military.

    Oh, congratulations on the new book. Well deserved!

  5. Leslie Budewitz
    Leslie Budewitz says:

    Here’s the thing: We can and must protect both the rights of the community and the rights of the accused. We’re smart enough to do both. Our Constitution requires it, and it’s part of what makes our country the beacon of liberty and justice that it is. If we don’t protect the rights of the accused, then none of us is safe from potential government abuse.

    I realize that it sounds good to say criminals should have no rights, but as Heather wrote yesterday, people are not always accurately accused. Until someone is tried and convicted, we may not actually know that they’ve committed a crime. The case of the Christmas Day bomber is different from most because there were dozens of eyewitnesses, some with cameras, and there is little doubt that he is guilty. But it’s not always so clear. The minimum constitutional guarantees have to be given to all, or they lose their meaning–and their ability to protect the falsely accused, the wrongly identified, the erroneously convicted, and the completely innocent. Lee’s reminder about the public safety exception established in Quarles is a good illustration, and the underwear bomber’s cooperation with law enforcement is another, that our system has developed the tools it needs — that WE need — to protect both public safety and the rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

    Leslie Budewitz
    Books, Crooks & Counselors: An Attorney’s Guide to Writing Law in Fiction (Quill Driver Books, Spring 2011)

  6. Pat Brown
    Pat Brown says:

    Bi-bipartisanism has essentially crippled the country. The people hurt are the citizens who are manipulated with buzz words and mindless diatribes. Even the media has become openly biased. I think voting for Alfred E. Neuman a wonderful idea. I’m just saying, too.

  7. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Liberty – I agree. A terrorist should never be given OUR precious rights. They’re not from here, they don’t belong here, and they should not be allowed to be tried in our legal system. We have enough of our own bad guys to last us all ten lifetimes. So why tie up our court’s time with someone who should never touch American soil?

    Now, I do want to remind everyone that this post is about Miranda and the exception to it that I pointed out, not my political views. This blog is here to help writers with their work by understanding police procedure, forensics, and all things in between. I’m not trying to bring the war on terrorism to this site. 🙂

  8. Liberty
    Liberty says:

    My issue with this is that a foreign *terrorist* is given the same rights as you or I. I don’t think this case is a civil case period because what this guy did was an act of war. To me, mirandizing him in the first place was a grievous lapse in judgment. Sure, the FBI was doing their job–I have no problem with that, that’s what they’re there for. But, the lawyers that obviously got involved, gave this Fruit-of-Kaboom-bomber an attorney, and told him he had rights (that should only be given to citizens), well those lawyers need to go back and re-learn the Constitution in my minds eye.

  9. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Dave – Yep, political correctness and fear of hurting someone’s precious feelings need to take a back seat until this terrorism thing is under better control. Those are the rules and laws that need to be questioned, not Miranda. If this bothers or offends anyone then they should feel welcome to stay home and dodge bombs, famine, corrupt governments (worse than ours :), and public beheadings. Gee, that sounds so much better than having to go through extra security at an airport, or being stopped a few times to answer a cop’s questions, huh?

  10. Dave Freas
    Dave Freas says:


    It’s about time we put the safety of individuals and the nation at large ahead of the ‘rights’ of criminals.

    IMHO, they lose all rights the moment they break the law.

  11. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    I agree, Jonathan. We do try to stay away from political issues here on TGS, but we’re talking the safety of our country and citizens here. So, here we are.

    Pork and fat wallets for politicians should never be an issue when it comes to Homeland Security and law enforcement. Actually, I’m fed up with ALL the pork and fat wallets in politics. I’m also tired of the petty bickering, negativity, and blanket NO’s.

  12. Jonathan Hayes
    Jonathan Hayes says:

    Interesting stuff – thanks, Lee.

    I hate it when the politicians jump all over an issue and turn it into a political football. National security is too important an issue for gamesmanship; case in point, this Alabama senator’s refusal to allow confirmation hearings for important Homeland Security posts until his demands for more pork for his state have been met.

  13. Kelly S.
    Kelly S. says:

    Thanks for this. My husband and I have been discussing “the Miranda issue” and we were wondering why is it an issue? We don’t have LE background, but it seems to us that the FBI and other officials did what they were supposed to do.

    From what Ive read recently, this guy is now singing like a canary anyway and his family is co-operating fully-I don’t understand what the issue is. All I can come up with is politico types flapping their gums.

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